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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 05/10/2012

The ironies of Teacher Appreciation Week

Last Friday, the Friday before the start of Teacher Appreciation Week and two business days before National Teacher Day, D.C. Public Schools officials sent out notices to 333 teachers saying that their jobs had effectively been eliminated. This should be considered better form than last year, when they sent out “excessing” notices on the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week.

But Washington D.C. is hardly the only place that could be cited for violating the spirit of the week so close to it. In state after state, legislatures are considering and passing laws to restrict or end teacher tenure, cut teachers’ collective bargaining rights, unfairly evaluate teachers in part by student standard test scores, and take other actions that teachers consider hostile.

There is too, the warm embrace of school reformers and the Obama administration of Teach for America — to which teachers take particular offense. TFA recruits newly minted college graduates who are not education majors and gives them five weeks of summer training before placing them in classrooms in high-poverty and rural schools, the very schools you’d think would need the most highly trained teachers.


Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Jay LaPrete - AP)
One of the official events on Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s schedule this week, as he goes around honoring teachers, is to appear at Teach for America’s second annual gala. Of course he did; the Education Department has showered millions of dollars on the organization in the last few years, and last September, Duncan said at an event with Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel: “I don’t think anyone in the country has done more over the past 15 to 20 years than Wendy Kopp to identify the talents and characteristics that lead to great teaching.”

That was news to many teachers and education researchers in this field.

It would be interesting to see the reaction of education policymakers if they were told that one or more of their children’s teachers had five weeks of training and wasn’t really interested in the teaching profession.

TFA recruits are asked to commit to only two years of teaching, helping to create turnover in schools where teacher instability is most harmful. (TFA itself and its critics cite different numbers when talking about the number of corps members who stay in education beyond a few years.)

This isn’t to say, of course, that some TFA recruits don’t turn out to be wonderful teachers. I know some who have. Still, America is not going to improve its teaching force with an army of itinerant young teachers.

There is a deep irony in the fact that school reformers talk so much about successful education systems in other countries, such as Finland, which have tough standards for entry into the profession, and their strong backing for Teach for America. Something is wrong with this picture.

All of this helps explain why teachers’ job satisfaction has sharply dropped since 2009, and the proportion who are thinking of leaving teaching has gone from 17 percent to 29 percent — a 70 percent increase in only two years, according to the most recent Metlife Survey of the American Teacher.

There is no question that there is a lot about the teaching profession that can and should be improved. Plenty of teacher training programs are inadequate, and there are teachers in classrooms who shouldn’t be. Most teacher evaluation systems need to be improved, and there is work under way toward that end.

But the unfortunate reality is that a lot of the “reforms” undertaken recently to “fix the profession” won’t work, and are more than likely to drive more teachers out of the profession.

The U.S. Education Department, in what it says is an effort to elevate the teaching profession to help students and teachers alike, released on Monday a 14-page “vision document” for transforming the education profession.

There are some good ideas in the document, but, try as it might, the Education Department can’t get out of its own way. In Section VII, Teacher Evaluation and Development, it includes as one of the teacher evaluation tools “measurements of student growth data.” In Education Department lingo, that means, at least in part, student standardized test scores.

Among the 3.2 million teachers now working in K-12 schools, there are certainly some who are not opposed to using test scores for evaluation. That doesn’t make it a good or fair idea, and it continues to make standardized tests the driving force in public education, a role these exams weren’t designed to have and which many — and I’d wager most — teachers think is inappropriate.

One of the comments on the Education Department website announcing the vision document says the following:

“Unless the public is persuaded that teachers are critical for our democratic society, the profession will continue to suffer economically and socially. After basking in the attention from stories of the positive influence they have had on on the lives of individual students during Teacher Appreciation Week, teachers need to integrate one more lesson to their repertoire. How ironic that teachers must teach the significance of teaching.”

And that’s where we stand during Teacher Appreciation Week 2012.

Some links you may find useful:

What teachers say they want

Has the NEA warmed up to Teach for America

Thoughts on teachers — from Socrates to Lady Gaga

The global reach of Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp

Teach for America is great! Just not for my kids!

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